PPhhDD: Why did I feel like I was doing two PhDs (or maybe none at all)?

Gavin Stewart

Beginning, Muddle and Ends

When I first contemplated writing a paper about the ‘muddled’ period in the middle of my PhD I worried that it would sound a bitter and self-indulgent note. I worried about the bitterness because, overall, I enjoyed my time as a research student at the University of Bedfordshire and I did not want to misrepresent the experience as being one of unrelenting misery. Similarly, I worried about sounding self-indulgent because I was acutely aware that I would be basing my paper on my memory of a set of strong emotions. Hence when I first had the opportunity to address this issue I ducked the challenge altogether and the good folks who attended last year’s In Theory conference at De Montfort University got to hear a much more measured paper which described the ever-changing relationship between theory and practice during the pre-doctoral, doctoral and post-doctoral phases of my project (Stewart, 2007).

One year on, I find myself once again moved to write about the ‘PPhhDD’ experience: that is the period of time when it felt like I was struggling with two (or more) diverging projects. I think this desire has returned because I have recently collaborated with some of our current PhD students here at the University of Bedfordshire and their questions have encouraged me to reflect on the way in which I went about my PhD. For example, when I looked on at this current crop scratching their heads over their internal paperwork it prompted me to think again about the manner in which I have reported on my experiences. Indeed, when I dipped into my hard drive and dredged up some of the internal reports I wrote during my period of confusion I noted with some surprise that I sounded confident and competent (even when I did not feel so). Similarly, when I looked again at the methodology chapter in my final thesis I recognized that it presented an orderly and coherent account of my progress even as I admitted that some of it was a muddle (Stewart, 2006).

I do not think I was wrong to be positive or coherent in this kind of document, however I can’t help feeling that this kind of account might not tell the full story. In this paper, therefore, I want to focus on the feelings associated with a point that came about half way through my studies when it felt like I was failing, in the hope that my account of my problems and their resolution might be useful for a fellow-traveller on the road to a PhD.

The Fun First Year

I think that the low point in my PhD was a consequence, in part, of my fun first year.

My Director of Studies once told me an old academic aphorism that captured my approach to the early stages of my project quite well. This ‘sage’ piece of lore runs something like - there are two types of PhD student; those who want to do a PhD and those who want to have a PhD. In my first year I was definitely a student who wanted to do a PhD. Indeed I wanted to do everything to do with a PhD. I went about everything with an almost puppyish enthusiasm. I wanted to think new thoughts. I wanted to learn about new technologies. I wanted to critique fascinating new works. I wanted to learn. Looking back on all this enthusiasm makes me tired now.

One of the many reasons why I enjoyed this heady first period so much was that I had constructed my project as a kind of quest. Prior to signing up to be a mature student at the, then, University of Luton I had been using computers in my writing practice with only limited success. It wasn’t that the work did not work it was more a case of I was not sure what to make of it when it did. As I noted in my PhD thesis I would regularly ask myself reflexive questions, such as:-

• Why was I using a computer in my practice?
• Was I writing? Was I doing something else?
• Was I going about my practice in the ‘right way’?

(Stewart, 2006:123)

With hindsight, I recognized that I had conceived of my PhD as a solution; the happy ending to a journey, if you like. It felt good, therefore, to be stepping out on the long road to this goal. However, I think I should have also recognized that there was a real possibility that I might learn something along the way and that there would be consequences associated with these kinds of unpredictable and serendipitous experiences.

I described this early period as my Fun First Year, but that is, of course, an over-simplification as even this period was not without its trials. For example, when I first started my studies one of my original supervision team decided to leave and join another institution. However, I continued to feel positive about being at Luton largely because I really enjoyed being around a department that comprised of theorists and practitioners from disciplines as varied as animation, design, screenwriting and computer programming. Indeed, some five years later I still enjoy this mix of media talent. However, I also think a further problem arose out of this ‘fun’ period because of the way I managed these relationships and the inter-disciplinary nature of my practice. For example, I often found that my work was often labelled as being ‘digital’ or ‘computer art’. I was not sure what I made of these unexpected designations. Did it mean that I had to code it all myself? Did it mean that I was no longer a writer?

On a day-to-day basis, I designated myself as working in ‘new’ media, whatever that might mean, and it was very enjoyable to be around practitioners and theorist working in this burgeoning area even if they were not creative writers. This was mainly because prior to joining the School of Media, Art and Design I had found myself isolated. Indeed, I had met very few people who were interested in using these technologies to do anything creative. Now suddenly, I found myself in an environment that included a wide variety of staff and students who used tech in their practice. I really enjoyed the fact that when I wanted to learn a server-side scripting language, I could find someone just down the corridor with a shelf full of PHP books. Likewise, I could get a coding tip from a colleague who had been experimenting with flash in their artistic practice. I also enjoyed the fact that I was encouraged to sit in on MA classes in multimedia and interface design. It was all good stuff. However, I think I became a little bit too obsessed with learning new skills.

At about the same time I also found myself in the company of group of people who liked to talk theory. Literary theory. Cultural theory. Media theory. Political Theory. What really surprised me, however, about these corridor tutorials was that after some initial reticence I began to enjoy these conversations. I even found myself going off to the library in search of some obscure theoretical texts. This awaking of my inner-theorist was quite a surprise. Suddenly, I found myself thinking about all sorts of new things that might relevant to my practice. Even stranger than this, I found myself expressing myself in a weird form of fiction known as academic prose.

Now it has to be said that some of these ideas were directly relevant to my research. Similarly, some of the skills I learnt from my computer-friendly comrades were useful for my practice. However, if I am absolutely honest most of them were not. Indeed, I think that my over-enthusiastic embrace of everything about me turned me into a kind of ‘knowledge gannet’ gobbling up any idea that came my way.

I remember I kept on asking my supervisor – Do you think I should do some work on this? I think I should have listened more closely to the long pauses at the beginning of his replies.

The ‘No Fun’ Second Year

I mentioned at the beginning of this paper that I experienced some very strong emotions during the course of my studies. The beginning of the ‘bad’ phase of my PhD coincided with the death of my original supervisor, John Moore. I was not close to John, however I admired him both as a teacher and person, and like many of the people around me I felt a strong sense of loss. I think more than anything else I missed the gentle way in which he allowed his students to gain insights for themselves.

In my case, the insight I singly failed to gain at that time was that I was letting my enthusiasms get the better of me. I kept pushing on all fronts and I did not prioritise my time enough. At first this was not a problem, indeed it was often quite enjoyable. However, as I started out to work on an ever-widening horizon I began to run out of days in the week and my project became unbalanced. Slowly but surely I focussed on the theory and the tech and at some point, that I did not identify, I let my practice slip.

Now, it might sound obvious that a practice-led degree should focus on a practice. However, I think it is a point worth making over and over during the course of a PhD. For in my case, it was not that I stopped writing or making new pieces of the computer altogether. It was more that the sheer intensity of my new interests made me feel that the writing was ancillary to the ‘main’ event.

My initial response to my problem was to work harder. When that did not work I opted for working harder still. However, the piles of books kept growing and I always found something needed debugging. After about six months of this kind of grind I woke up to realization that I was miserable. I looked at the piles of code that was clogging up my desk. I looked at the tower of cultural theory sitting next to the code and I finally recognized that something had gone wrong.

My first reaction was to give up on the PhD. Indeed, my second reaction was also to quit. However, I was lucky that my new supervisor was both enthusiastic and sensitive to my emotional needs and this gave me the encouragement I needed to carry on.

The Recovery Continues

It would be nice at this point to say that having identified that I had a problem that every thing came out right. However, this really was not the case.

My initial reaction to the PPhhDD problem was to ring-fence some time in my week for practice. I think that was a good decision. However, this arrangement also created a situation in which my theory work and my practical work were now in competition. Furthermore, it reinforced the feeling that I was working on two PhDs at the same time. Indeed, there were long moments during this period when I had no idea what the relationship was between theoretical work and my current practice.

It was also about this time that I completed the transfer process from MPhil to PhD. This was an unpleasant experience mainly because I had convinced myself that I was going to fail. However, having survived the seminar and a suggestion by a reviewer that I needed to think about my methodology I found an opportunity to step back from my project. I really did not enjoy studying about research methodologies (and complained about it to all and sundry), however, one useful thing that came out of this digression was the realization that I did not need to do everything myself in order to claim to be creative.

These insights were useful because it meant that I opened myself up to collaborate with others. I realised that I did not need to be a coding expert: that I did not have take every photograph that appeared in my project: that, in point of fact, I did not have to write every word that appeared in my project. These insights were useful, in turn, because it meant that I stopped worrying about the 'context' of my practice.

The final phase of my recovery came about as a result of a positive change in my relationship to theory. In the paper I wrote for the In Theory conference I noted that at the beginning of my PhD I was new to theory and “I saw it in the light of a far-off range of mountains” (Stewart, 2007:63). However, as time went on this relationship became more intimate so that I started to talk about my theories. I found this more intimate relationship beneficial as I became empowered by my theoretical positions. Furthermore, my theory became useful in a practical way as it presented me with ideas and inspirations that I could use in my practice. I think my mood improved because I felt that I was producing work that I valued.

I don’t think there was ever a final resolution to my PPhhDD moment. Instead, I think I have just come to accept that my theoretical interests and practice will never coincide exactly during every phase of a project. Similarly, I have also come accept that some projects are best suited to a creative approach and others are best tackled in an academic form. Furthermore, I have come to embrace the fact that it is fun and productive to work with other people who skills that compliment my own.

References

Stewart, Gavin (2006) A Homecoming Festival: The Application of the Dialogic Concepts of Addressivity and the Awareness of Participation to an Aesthetic of Computer-mediated Textual Art, A Thesis Submitted for the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy, University of Bedfordshire - available at http://gavinstewart.net/homecoming/homephd.html (last viewed 1st April 2008)

Stewart, Gavin (2007) So You Think it is All Over?: The Welcome Presence of (a Certain Sort of) Theory in Post-Doctorate Practice A Paper Submitted to the In Theory conference, De Montfort University

Copyright Gavin Stewart 2008

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